California Bucket List

Here’s your daily travel guide to the best adventures and experiences in the Golden State. Each of these essential California adventures has been tried and tested by a Travel section staffer or contributor.

Tell us what's on your California bucket list. Email and put California Bucket List in the subject line.

370 posts
  • Family-friendly
  • L.A. County
Artist James Hubbell's Skyspace is on display at the Pomona College campus in Claremont.
Artist James Hubbell's Skyspace is on display at the Pomona College campus in Claremont. (Elise Parhad)

Why: This awe-inspiring public art installation brings new beauty to the light of dawn and dusk. 

What: “Dividing the Light” (2007), one of several dozen Skyspaces worldwide by artist James Turrell, is an elevated metal frame perched above an outdoor courtyard. A mesmerizing light show begins at dawn and dusk when the frame is illuminated with colored light, enhancing the sky’s own changing hues.

The Skyspace is a part of the Pomona College Museum of Art. For Turrell, an L.A. native and alumnus of Pomona College (’65) and Claremont Graduate University (’73), this campus installation is a homecoming of sorts, and the only public Skyspace in Southern California.

The swan boats of Echo Park Lake.
The swan boats of Echo Park Lake. (Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

Why: The hotter it gets, the more sense these pedal vessels make.

What: The artificial lake in Echo Park goes back to at least 1870. The boathouse and pedal boat operation go back decades. And the place has been dramatically upgraded in the last few years, beginning with a draining and cleaning in 2011-2013. The paddle boats operated by Wheel Fun Rentals are now shaped like swans and the larger ones hold up to five people or 1,400 pounds. (These boats look a lot like the historic swan boats in Boston Common, which also go back to the 1870s.)

Head out for an hour of pedaling and drifting, not necessarily in that order, and imagine the early 20th century days when Aimee Semple McPherson was preaching in the Angelus Temple next door and these hills were crawling with communists, socialists and spiritualists.  

  • Family-friendly
  • S.F. Bay Area
The Giants have played in AT&T Park since 2000.
The Giants have played in AT&T Park since 2000. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Whether you’re for the Giants or against them, you can root for a home run into the bay here —  something you won’t see at any other major league baseball stadium. In fact, you can see bits of San Francisco Bay —  distant wharves, cargo ships, maybe a few kayaks in McCovey Cove — from many of the 41,915 seats in AT&T Park. And in a city that’s not always easy for families, this park is full of kid-friendly features.

What: The Giants have been based in San Francisco since 1958, but they only started winning championships here after this ballpark opened in 2000. (Beyond center field you’ll see banners celebrating the team’s World Series victories in 2010, 2012 and 2014, and a few more from the earlier New York years.)

Builders worked hard to reduce the winds that made the old Candlestick Park a nightmare for anyone fielding a fly ball —  and largely succeeded. In fact, experts often rank this park first or second among the most pleasant in the major leagues.

Hollywood Land, Disney California Adventure
Hollywood Land, Disney California Adventure (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: If somebody asked you to compress the best of California into 72 acres, make it abundantly kid-friendly and persuade thousands of people to spend long hours and big money there, you might crack under the pressure. (Admit it, you’re already uncomfortable.)

That was Disney’s mission with this park. And Disney failed … at first. But since that awkward debut in 2001, when attendance fell far short of expectations, the park people have been steadily changing and fixing this place. Even if you’re skeptical about all things Disney (as some people are), you’ll probably get a kick out of this cartoon version of our state.

What: Most of the park’s rides, restaurants and photo ops are all about idealizing California, including Hollywood Land (who’s ever seen such clean streets and tidy storefronts in the real Hollywood?); Pacific Wharf (a mix of Cannery Row in Monterey and Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco); and Grizzly Peak (a nod to Yosemite and the tall trees of Northern California). But other features these days reach far beyond state lines.

On the western slopes
On the western slopes (Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

Why: It’ll quicken your pulse, drop your jaw and demand your full attention. There’s no more dramatic passage from Central California’s blond hills to the Big Sur coast than this 24-mile route.

What: Nacimiento-Fergusson Road, a winding, two-lane highway, begins in the Salinas Valley countryside north of Paso Robles, next to the often-overlooked Mission San Antonio de Padua and the Army’s Ft. Hunter-Liggett. From there it creeps through forest and chaparral to the crest of the Santa Lucia Mountains, about 2,800 feet above sea level. Then for 7 miles, via dozens of switchback turns, it wends its way down the western slopes to Big Sur.

It meets Highway 1 at Kirk Creek, about 4 miles south of Lucia.

Mission San Antonio de Padua
Mission San Antonio de Padua (Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)
(Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)
  • Family-friendly
  • L.A. County
Grand Park, Dec. 31, 2015.
Grand Park, Dec. 31, 2015. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Every real downtown has a park to serve as urban backyard, and Grand Park is more proof that L.A.'s downtown is getting realer by the day.

What: The 12-acre park connects the Music Center at the top of Bunker Hill with City Hall at the bottom. (Yes, you can go to City Hall's 27th floor observation deck and it's free). The park isn't really new -- there's been open space for decades on these blocks between government buildings. But a dramatic redesign in 2012 put a far better spin on the area, and it doesn't hurt that neighboring Cathedral of our Lady of the Angels arrived in 2002, Disney Hall in 2003 and the Broad Museum in 2015.

Besides its welcome green expanses and flanking playground and dog-run areas, Grand Park includes a fountain (with splash pad for kids), an adjacent Starbucks, plenty of places to sit and a busy schedule of holiday events and live shows. Picnicking is encouraged. Protesting is permitted. Food trucks come for lunch most Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. There's midday yoga on many Wednesdays and Fridays. In October and November, the park hosts Día de los Muertos altars and art; in November and December, holiday lights.

  • Family-friendly
  • Central Coast
(Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

Why: McWay Falls, the splashiest attraction in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, roars down 80 feet from granite and redwoods to a creamy Big Sur beach and implausibly turquoise cove. It’s the cascade that other waterfalls want to be. It’s also a perfectly impossible California destination, because you can’t stand under these falls. There’s no safe way to the beach.

What: The hike is more of a stroll, really. It’s about half a mile, mostly flat. (And the rest of the park remains mostly closed because of mudslides and other damage done by the Soberanes Fire of 2016.) Once you’ve passed through a short tunnel under Highway 1 and made a right turn, you’ll soon be standing on a rocky perch where a house once stood, looking south to the beach and falls.

This is an invitation to chill. For one thing, the trail has ended. Also, like Yosemite Falls — which led off our California Bucket List project on Jan. 1 — McWay Falls is a sort of perpetuity made plain. The water keeps coming, even if it’s in short supply elsewhere. And the cell reception is so rotten that you’ll probably never get an Instagram photo posted from here.

  • S.F. Bay Area
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why:  Simplicity and complexity meet in the Swedenborgian Church of San Francisco, and the marriage is a harmonious celebration of architecture and intellect.

 What: The 1895 Swedenborgian Church of San Francisco, a national historic landmark in Pacific Heights, is an Arts and Crafts building designed by several architects, including Bernard Maybeck, who created the Palace of Fine Arts at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915 in San Francisco.

Inside the walls are rustic redwood, found often in Arts and Crafts buildings and consistent with the Swedenborgian appreciation of natural objects, according to the 1969 book “Here Today: San Francisco’s Architectural Heritage.”  The chairs are maple, “made by hand, without the use of nails, and their seats were woven of tule rushes from the Sacramento River Delta,” the book says.

  • Inland Empire
(Courtesy of Glen Ivy Hot Springs)

Why: If you’re intimidated by the word “spa,” Glen Ivy is the place for you. It feels accessible, not exclusive, meaning you can sit back and relax.

What: Which is what you want to do. There are 19 pools to try, including the mineral pools, the star attraction in the early days of the late 1800s when you could soak in them for 25 cents.

Today, you start by getting a locker for your street clothes and putting on your swim suit in a well-appointed area that includes changing rooms, showers and big, lighted mirrors where you’ll find hairdryers you’ll want later in the day.

  • Family-friendly
  • San Diego County
 Midget race car model at the Miniature Engineering Craftsmanship Museum.
Midget race car model at the Miniature Engineering Craftsmanship Museum. (Irene Lechowitzky)

Why: The Miniature Engineering Craftsmanship Museum in Carlsbad is novel and quirky – and proof that good things come in small packages.

What: The collection includes painstakingly crafted, remarkable miniatures, many with moving parts. There are cars, planes, engines of all sorts, ships, thumb-sized guns and knives, and much more. These are not the plastic model car kits from your childhood; for example, there's an eye-popping version of a 1932 Duesenberg SJ that has more than 6,000 custom-made parts and is said to have taken more than 10 years to finish. The folks who built these tiny wonders spent decades perfecting their craft. 

There are hundreds of works from around the world on display, and docents to describe the intricacies and makers of each. Try to time your visit to coincide with a tour of the machine shop/engine room for a little extra oomph.